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Plumage Variations

This Turkey Tuesday is about plumage variations, a topic that arises each turkey season as we encounter birds with abnormal feather colors. Wild turkeys have several color variations, those being smoke gray, erythristic (red), melanistic (black), and leucistic (white). But turkeys show all kinds of plumage variations that can’t be pigeon-holed into a “color phase”, there’s simply a lot of variation across the landscape. Plumage variations in general are recessive genetic traits in wild populations, and although you often hear speculation that these variations come from breeding with domestic birds, the reality is that color variations occur naturally in wild flocks. And sometimes, you get an absolute stunner of a bird like this Rio Grande hen photographed by Stephen Spurlock in Hawaii. This hen shows feathers suggestive of both the smoke phase and red phase, so what’s the deal? Well, this hen simply lacks darker pigments in feathers on portions of her body, so she maintains black parts of some feathers and the others lose pigments and lack color. Other feathers maintain some level of pigment, and those levels vary in a way that results in her sporting feathers that appear so variable. In fact, I see birds every year that appear to overproduce melanin that causes parts of their plumage to be solid black, particularly in the wing feathers. Interestingly, some of the recessive genetic traits that cause plumage variations can be traced back to a mutation that is passed through generations, owing to why we see “odd” plumage show up in local areas year after year. Has anyone seen or harvested a bird in your area that had interesting plumage?

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